LiAngelo Ball, center, is flanked by brothers Lonzo, second from left, and LaMelo, right. during a playoff game Friday against Immanuel. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
By Bill Plaschke Contact Reporter
March 12, 2016
The snack bar sells Cheetos and Funyuns. The banners behind the basket advertise massages and sheet metal.
The white sign on the wall reads, "Maximum Occupancy 1316", a number that was reached an hour before Friday's game, when long lines of fans standing in chilly dampness were allowed entry into rows of wooden bleachers that are now heated and hopping.
The national anthem is sung by a senior girl athlete. The coach is given vigorous pregame handshakes by scruffy students. The star player sits on the bench rocking to a rap song while chatting with a tiny ball boy. The announcer solemnly asks everyone to be nice to the referees.
The scene is Hoosiers.
Then it is Showtime.
The Chino Hills High boys' basketball team takes the floor and this community high school suddenly becomes Hollywood, home to the best prep team in the country and the most entertaining hoops of any sort in Southern California.
LiAngelo Ball looks to score against Immanuel during a regional playoff game on Friday at Chino Hills High.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Five seconds into this state playoff game against Reedley Immanuel, a lanky 6-foot-6 senior guard named Lonzo Ball nails a long three-pointer. Then he blocks a shot. Then he streaks downcourt for a layup. Then he twists through the lane for another layup. It is 7-0 before the game is two minutes old, and fans are oohing, and aahing, and screaming, and swaying, and it's not just about his kid who was recently named Naismith high school player of the year.
Lonzo Ball has brothers. Two of them. They play just like him. They are playing with him right now, and together the trio is absolutely breathtaking. There is stocky 6-foot-6 junior LiAngelo Ball knocking down long shots and lofting in floaters. There is wiry 5-foot-10 freshman LaMelo Ball dribbling and sprinting and shooting around confused defenders.
All three have verbally committed to play for UCLA. From the looks of it, a cynic might say all three could play for UCLA right now.
The Balls aren't some imported wonders from a distant district. They grew up down the street, so this gym is their park, and that's how they lead this team, with a delightful playground assortment of floor-length passes, unconscionable shots from Temecula, theatrical leaps, cinema swats and relentless running.
The crowd is packed tightly together, but somehow manages to continually jump and stomp. The officials stop the game twice to clear the end zone of fans and media. At one point, the Huskies' jump shots are falling so fast, a student opens an umbrella and shrugs as if it's impossible to stop the rain.
Actually, it might be impossible. Immanuel had lost only five games, but it doesn't stand a chance. The Huskies lead by 17 at halftime, by 23 after three quarters, and finish with a state-record-tying 18th 100-point game in a 103-71 victory that gives them a 32-0 record and puts them three wins shy of a state title.
It is indeed Showtime, a brand of basketball so uniquely glorious that late in the game, the students unleash an unusual yet appropriate chant.
"Tri-ple-di-gits! ... Tri-ple-di-gits!"
Yet it is also Hoosiers. Just listen to Debbie Long and Lorae Vanden Berge, known as "Dubba and Lubba," the two women who have been standing at the gym's front door taking tickets since the school opened in 2001.
"This is not just a basketball team," Long says, shouting to be heard over the refreshing din of community greatness. "These are our boys."
The backyard wonder of a basketball team was formed, appropriately, in a backyard.
Less than a mile from the Chino Hills campus, behind the house in which they have lived since 1996, LaVar and Tina Ball raised their three sons on two basketball goals. One was at the end of a slab of concrete that stretched more than 30 feet. The other, on the side, contained a double rim.
The Ball children learned to bomb on one goal, and swish on the other, and then they would adjourn to a nearby park to run until they had the stamina to put it all together for two hours.
Says Lonzo: "Everything we do on the court, it's second nature to us, we've been doing for years at home."
If you're really that good, they will find you, doesn't matter where you are. If you can find a seven-footer in Africa, you can find my boys off the 71 in Chino Hills.— LaVar Ball, on why he sent his sons to Chino Hills High instead of a well-known basketball program
LaVar Ball cheers for his sons during Chino Hills' victory over Immanuel during a regional playoff game Friday.(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
Says LaVar: "All the battles, all the togetherness, it was all formed right here at home."
In a move that stunned longtime basketball observers, the family has stayed home. In today's basketball landscape, young stars usually transfer from local public schools to wealthy private institutions that supposedly can better showcase their talents, but these parents didn't agree.
"Everybody going left, I'm going right," LaVar says with a grin.
Ball is a large man who grew up in a close-knit South Los Angeles community, once played basketball at Washington State and was a member of a couple of NFL practice squads. He knows the value of sports, he knows the strength of neighborhoods, and he and his wife decided their sons should have both.
"I'm saying, the school is right around the corner, that's where we're going," he says. "If you're really that good, they will find you, doesn't matter where you are. If you can find a seven-footer in Africa, you can find my boys off the 71 in Chino Hills."
Ball was adamant that not only his boys stay home, but that they stay together.
"I want to keep them together because, like I told them, if you don't take care of your brothers, who will?" LaVar says. "They've been together since babies. They love each other, and they play together like it."
With the addition of 14-year-old freshman LaMelo to the team, this is the first year that all three have played together at the high school level. Add starters Elizjah Scott and Onyeka Okongwu to a group that plays virtually the entire game, and the results have been astounding.The Huskies won their season opener against San Bernardino by 89 points. They scored at least 100 points in four of their first five games. In one game they scored 85 points in one half. After one quarter of a Southern Section playoff game against traditional powerhouse Mater Dei, they led 33-6.
"It's been a dream come true," says Coach Steve Baik, who changed his system to fit the Balls' talents.
When asked if he cringes when they attempt the 40-footers or circus alley-oops, he smiles.
"They shoot those shots in practice and they make it," he says. "What we do in our games we do in our practices. I love their confidence."
More than anything, Baik says, he loves their humility, and who can blame him? The only thing more impressive than Chino Hills' domination is that it occurs with such grace and class. There is no gesturing, no taunting, no celebrating.
One Ball brother will throw a floor-length pass to another Ball brother, who will throw a no-look pass to another, who will nail a 35-foot fadeaway jumper, and while the gym shakes from the screaming crowd, the expressionless boys simply run to play defense.
"Playing the game you love, with the people you love, it's a joy to do it every day," Lonzo says. "But we also understand that we're playing for school, for our community, for something bigger than ourselves."
The theme of staying together and staying close to home extended to the college recruiting process, as LaVar thought one place could fulfill all their needs, and that was UCLA.
In typical Ball fashion, instead of Lonzo visiting there alone, the entire family showed up.
"We all walked into Steve Alford's office and he had to pull in five chairs and a couch," Lavar said. "Coach said, 'I'm not used to this.'"
Alford will get used to it. On the spot, all three Balls verbally committed to UCLA. The addition of Lonzo next season alone, as part of the nation's No. 3 recruiting class, has helped give the embattled Alford a reprieve. And no, in the wake of this year's losing Bruin season, the Balls are not listening to social media and changing their minds.
"People can say what they want, but Steve wanted my boys from day one, our relationship is strong, and I'm never going to leave his side," LaVar said. "It's a great school, it's close to home, and the worst thing that can happen is that my boys get a degree from UCLA."
On this Friday night, the benefits of staying close to home can be seen everywhere.
LaVar sits in the front row at midcourt, surrounded by all sorts of members of his family, the boy's two grandfathers sitting next to each other, lots of folks wearing shirts that read "Ball Nation" or "Ball Star" or "UnbelievaBall." Elsewhere in the building are friends and neighbors of the entire Chino Hills team, folks who grew up with these kids, folks willing to stand for two hours in line to see how they turned out.